Close your eyes for a second (after you finish reading this paragraph) and imagine an ideal federal budget. Maybe it bolsters the social safety net. Eliminates fossil fuel subsidies, perhaps. Invests in sustainable job creation. Makes taxes more progressive.
Let's get the boring stuff out of the way up front.
The renewable energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) is an incentive provided to energy producers equal to 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, adjusted annually for inflation. If you generate electricity using a renewable system -- geothermal, wind, solar, etc. -- you're eligible.
For now, anyway. The credit is expiring for most forms of energy creation at the end of 2013. For wind, it's up at the end of 2012.
Which has wind energy producers understandably nervous. But don't worry, wind energy producers! Karl Rove has your back!
So, what's the state of play on energy in the presidential race? I'm glad you asked.
Broadly, what's happened is that both parties now perceive, accurately, that the public is pro-energy. That's why both parties are grappling for the "all of the above" slogan.
"Pro-energy," in the U.S. public's case, means pro more energy, cheaper energy, cleaner energy, and more secure energy. What the public does not like is the trade-offs between those goals. It doesn't like hearing that it has to give anything up. It doesn't like hearing about "anti-energy" penalties and prohibitions. And it never likes favoritism, waste, fraud, or generic "spending."
Given that all energy policies involve trade-offs between various desiderata, a political party's ability to sell an energy policy to the public hinges on its ability to evoke the right frames. More/cheaper/cleaner/safer energy always polls well. Restraints, added cost, pollution, and foreign-ness (especially Middle Eastern-ness) do not.
This basic dynamic helps explain why Mitt Romney is not dropping Solyndra. Conservatives still see it as one of their bests attacks on Obama. It evokes Big Government spending, cronyism, waste, and failure (i.e., less energy). It tars the rest of Obama's clean-energy programs, nay his entire agenda, by association.
I've seen a recent surge of stories about conservatives and climate change. None of them, oddly, tell voters what they most need to know on the subject. In fact, one of them does the opposite. (Grrrr ...)
I respond in accordance with internet tradition: a listicle!
5.Conservatives have a long history of advancing environmental progress. In a column directed to Mitt Romney, Thomas Friedman reels off (one suspects from memory) "the G.O.P.'s long tradition of environmental stewardship that some Republicans are still proud of: Teddy Roosevelt bequeathed us national parks, Richard Nixon the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and George H. W. Bush cap-and-trade that reduced acid rain." This familiar litany is slightly misleading, attributing to presidents what is mostly the work of Congresses, but the basic point is valid enough: In the 20th century, Republicans have frequently played a constructive role on the environment.
Canals are ecologically barren channels built for the utilitarian purpose of draining rainwater and snowmelt away from rivers and delivering it to farmers, factories, and homes. But something unusual has been lurking in an irrigation canal in rural Washington that promises to turn these concrete water conveyors into climate-friendly power plants.
A bright yellow turbine resembling a 15-foot roll of Scotch tape was dropped into the gushing waterway near Yakima, Wash., in March to generate cheap, renewable electricity while emitting no carbon.
The experimental hydrokinetic turbine is an archetype of an emerging technology that could quickly become commonplace in the canals that crisscross great swaths of continents.
We’ve all heard the common myths about renewable energy: It’s expensive; it can’t be relied upon; there just isn’t enough of it to meet our energy needs. But as technological advances and plummeting costs drive explosive growth -- U.S. installed wind capacity has grown sevenfold to nearly 47 gigawatts in the last seven years -- real-world experience is shattering long-held assumptions every day. Even ardent supporters of renewables may be surprised by what we’re learning.
Renewable energy actually reduces electricity prices for businesses and consumers. A new analysis [PDF] conducted by Synapse Energy Economics on behalf of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid found that adding more wind power to the electric grid could reduce wholesale market prices by more than 25 percent in the Midwest region by 2020 -- $3–$10 per megawatt hour (MWh) in the near term, and up to nearly $50 per MWh by 2030. Those savings would be passed along to consumers through lowering retail electricity prices by $65–$200 each year.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee voting through a provision that would kill the U.S. military's ambitious biofuels program. Last night, the Senate Armed Services Committee did the same, and worse. It voted not only to block purchase of any fuel more expensive than fossil fuels, but to "prohibit the construction of a biofuels refinery or any other facility or infrastructure used to refine biofuels unless the requirement is specifically authorized by law." Congress micromanaging military energy strategy: What could go wrong?
"But David," you're saying, "Democrats have a majority in the Senate. The committee has 14 Democrats and only 12 Republicans. How could this happen?"
The U.S. military's "going green" is not a singular phenomenon. There are several different things going on under that rubric, with different rationales and different effects. Some of them make such obvious strategic, economic, and environmental sense that no one really can, or does, oppose them. But one in particular -- the biofuels initiative -- is much less clear-cut. Before discussing that, though, let's try to pick apart and categorize the green initiatives underway at the Department of Defense.
First off, there are attempts to reduce fossil-fuel use in the theater of war, mainly Iraq and Afghanistan, through more efficiency (insulated tents, LED lights) and the use of distributed renewables. These efforts directly enhance battlefield effectiveness. They make fighting units lighter and faster. They reduce the need for fuel convoys, saving lives and money. They are unimpeachable -- even Republicans in Congress will hesitate to second-guess the military's tactical logistics decisions.
Second, there are attempts to make U.S. military bases more independent of civilian power grids, which are vulnerable to accidents, blackouts, or attacks. In part this is being done by generating power on-site. Solar power for bases has become far more affordable, thanks to plummeting solar-panel prices, but there are also experiments underway with wind, geothermal, and biomass. Bases are also increasing energy and waste efficiency and experimenting with smart microgrids. These efforts seem somewhat more vulnerable to political attack, but I've not yet heard of any.
Third, there are efforts to find new liquid fuels for the military's vast land, air, and water fleets. This one is the biggie, from the standpoint of sheer quantities of energy and money. It's the most difficult. And it's also the most controversial, in terms of Republican opposition and environmental risk.
The U.S. military recognizes that dependence on fossil fuels is a threat to U.S. strategic influence and its own operational effectiveness. With that in mind, it's trying to make itself lighter and leaner, reducing energy consumption at bases and on the battlefield while working to develop fuel alternatives for its ship and plane fleets. Republicans have been quietly grumbling about this for a while; now they are openly opposing it. The GOP wastes no opportunity to boast of "supporting the troops," but that support apparently ends where Big Oil contributions begin.
Let's look at a few examples, shall we?
GOP tries to block use of cleaner fuels
Last week, the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee proposed a new Pentagon budget. Tucked away inside it was a provision that would prohibit the Department of Defense from buying any alternative fuels that cost more than conventional fossil fuels. TPM has the story.
Slate's Fred Kaplan laments that this provision would kill the $12 million "Green Strike Group" program the Navy is running, which would field a strike group running entirely on biofuels (and a nuclear-powered carrier) for a naval exercise in June. The Navy hopes to have an entire "Great Green Fleet" in the water by 2016.
On Thursday, President Obama will visit TPI Composites, a wind manufacturer in Newton, Iowa (population, 15,254). There, he will reiterate his support for the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a federal support program that has helped drive wind's rapid expansion in the U.S. The PTC is now in peril, as Congress appears unlikely to renew it when it expires at the end of this year. The loss of the PTC would put tens of thousands of current jobs -- and almost 100,000 future jobs [PDF] -- at risk.
Newton's experience is illustrative, so let's recount a little history.